Coverage of the top books of last year, as measured by the number of times a book was mentioned as a best book of the year or nominated for an award, continues today as I turn toward short stories. I’ll highlight the top five collections, then list some of the other books that came close.
In the 4th spot, tied with 14 mentions each, are two books. The first is The Stone Mattress, by the Canadian veteran Margaret Atwood. It’s a collection that blends various genres and has been cited for psychological insight, particularly in regard to the aging process. That means there is plenty of wry, dark humor about frustrations with the physical body. Don’t, however, expect the stories to be dull because of their aged protagonists. These characters are still vivid and full of lively emotions of all kinds.
Download the full ABBC2014 spreadsheet
The other book with 14 mentions is Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. In a collection of stories that are often as brief as a single paragraph, or even shorter, Davis uses a variety of forms: complaint notes, excerpts from Flaubert’s letter, a set of one-line obituaries, and dream sequences, among others. Davis plays with point of view and finds pithy little philosophical observations in surprising places. It’s a sly little book that will appeal especially to fans of the short short story.
The 3rd spot (15 mentions) is claimed by Richard Ford and his long running character Frank Bascombe in Let Me Be Frank with You. Bascombe was the protagonist of The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006), all highly praised, and now Ford explores his behavior in four linked stories set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The aging and often inappropriate Bascombe is providing “counsel” to his former real-estate clients, whose beachfront properties are now devastated. Meanwhile, his ex-wife has moved into an assisted living center in town and his wife is working with hurricane victims. Whether doing the right thing reluctantly or indulging in a savage but funny rail against cultural failures, Bascombe is always entertaining and Ford’s writing is full of little “gotcha” moments. Is this the last stand for Frank Bascombe? Readers should hope not.
In 2nd place this year, with 21 mentions, is Bark, by the great short-story specialist Lorrie Moore. These are stories in which the political and the public, particularly events in the war on terror, have an impact on private lives. The stories deal with coping with life’s disappointments: the relationship that has grown tired, the career that has gone nowhere, and the regrets of middle age. Moore’s sharp wit is on display throughout, and will hit the spot for those who like their stories with a shot of wry.
At the top of the list is the only writer here who’s not a familiar face. Phil Klay’s debut, Redeployment, received 34 mentions as a best book of the year, putting it well ahead of the rest of the short-story pack. The stories are set in Afghanistan and Iraq, or sometimes after the fighting, when the soldiers have returned home. Critics have already hailed the book as a classic of war writing. Klay explores a variety of vantages—chaplain, PsyOps, infantry, artillery, and “mortuary affairs”—and finds the commonalities, even as each voice is different. The feelings here are raw: impotent anger, psychic numbing, gallows humor used to mask pain. It’s a book that many have singled out as the best fictional accounting of the Iraq War.
Of course the All the Best Books Compilation is about more than just the frontrunners. There are many others deemed one of the best of 2014 by multiple sources. Here are the other short-story collections that each received more than five such mentions:
Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (12)
Hillary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (10)
Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (10)
Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light in the Air (7)
Diane Cooke, Man v. Nature (7)
Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea (6)
B. J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories & Other Stories (6)
Alice Munro, Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 (5)
Francesca Marciano, The Other Language (5)
Jane Gardam, The Stories of Jane Gardam (5)
Julia Elliott, The Wilds (5)